In 1998 the science fiction writer David Brin published a nonfiction book called The Transparent Society. Among the things he envisioned was people walking around with head-mounted video cameras that would make it riskier for criminals to accost them.
I remember thinking, "But how many people are so worried about crime that they're going to strap a camera to their head?" With Google glasses now officially unveiled, the answer is in: Just as smartphone cameras piggyback on a pocket computer, head-mounted cameras could become standard equipment as part of a bigger, more broadly useful package. That's why Brin's future will probably arrive, sooner or later. Is that a good thing?
On the one hand, if both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman had been wearing Google glasses, with their visual fields streaming to the cloud and being recorded there, their awareness of this record might have discouraged aggression. And if not, at least we'd know for sure what happened.
On the more worrisome side, Kashmir Hill of Forbes thinks Google glasses will "accelerate the arrival of the persistent and pervasive citizen surveillance state." After all, the government will presumably have the same subpoena power over your recorded visual field that it has over other records. And even if you choose not to record your video stream, you'll still enter lots of other people's visual fields. Everyone's glimpse of you will, for all you know, be available to posterity.
One thing that renders all this plausible is what a seamless extension it is of the past 20 years. From email to twitter to EZ Pass to ATM surveillance cams, more and more of our lives is on record--and the records are often out there somewhere, beyond our control.
Maybe, pre-digital modernity, with the vast anonymity it afforded urbanites, will eventually be seen as a temporary aberration. As Brin noted in The Transparent Society, people who live in small villages in traditional societies don't have much privacy; pretty much everybody knows everybody else's business--and that's one thing that keeps people on good behavior. Google glasses, however bizarrely futuristic they seem now, could return us to a state of nature. I'm not sure I want to go.
Postscript: Here is Hill discussing the implications of Google glasses (and mentioning the Trayvon Martin scenario) on the Friedersdorf Show--which, as you may have already surmised, is hosted by The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf, on Bloggingheads.tv:
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You can watch their entire conversation, which covers other issues at the intersection of technology and privacy, here.
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